The Loon usually enjoys being right, it happens so rarely. Today… not so much. She saw Harvard coming, you see. No, she didn’t know Harvard would be the first big public explosion over academic-library restructuring, but having read Harvard’s self-study almost the day it appeared in 2009, she can’t say she’s exactly surprised, either.
It’s both easy and tempting to ignore what goes under the general heading of “strategic planning” in large academic libraries. Some of it is indeed brainless buzzword-laden fluff with zero relationship to reality present or future. Some of it isn’t. Telling the difference is non-trivial, but the Loon suggests that significant involvement from campus stakeholders outside the library may be one indicator of seriousness; it certainly was at Harvard. Paid consultants, on the other hand…
For those who wish to follow along, the Twitter hashtag is #hlth. Sharp critiques of the Harvard process are already emerging. The Loon isn’t prepared to join in the condemnation at this juncture; almost anyone has greater experience and expertise in the nuts and bolts of human-resource management (never mind crisis management) than she does. She does opine, alongside others, that no reorganization of this magnitude can be anything other than wrenchingly painful and terrifying, and she offers her sincere sympathy to all concerned, for the little that must be worth.
The Loon strongly suspects that Harvard is far from the only ARL-style library system that will undergo sweeping organizational change within the next three to five years. Less sweeping (though still substantial), rather less public changes have already happened at ARL libraries here and there. (The Loon declines to be specific, but has three such in mind, just off the top of her feathered head.) Taiga has been signaling organizational restructuring for years as well.
Why? What is it about the internal and external environments at research libraries that warrants such behavior? That the Loon has a few (non-specific to Harvard, she hastens to say) thoughts on. She hopes they’ll help research librarians take a hard look at their own organizations and their positions within them, in order to protect themselves.
If the Loon had to characterize the primary difficulty in a single phrase, it would be creeping malinvestment, of space and staff. Many of today’s research libraries tend to have too many resources allocated to open stacks, underused small physical libraries, in-person reference points, and book selection, relative to the current value of these services to research-library patrons and research institutions. MARC cataloging is not just yet a likely locus of malinvestment, but the Loon suspects it will become one when (she does think “when” is correct) linked-data infrastructure eliminates considerable redundant work librarianship-wide.
(Just to be entirely clear, the Loon is not saying “there will be no physical libraries or reference desks!” or anything similarly bat-brained. Fewer is not the same as none.)
No one intended this, of course; when these investments were initially decided upon, they weren’t mal-. Once institutionalized, though, they stayed institutionalized, partly under the combined influence of tenure (and similar forever-job arrangements) and librarianship’s lack of dedication to post-MLS professional development, much less continuous organizational change. Something might also be said about the culture of workplace autonomy in research librarianship; malinvestment worsened in many research libraries where no one can tell a research librarian to change his day-to-day praxis and get results. This makes for a pleasant workplace for many research librarians, to be sure, but it also risks unchecked accumulation of deadwood and a library staff that isn’t pulling in useful, much less coordinated, directions.
Symptoms of malinvestment include Coordinator Syndrome, perhaps best explained as unwillingness or inability to allocate sufficient staff and budget to innovations. Utterly senseless organization charts also hint at malinvestment; research libraries neither retrain nor dismiss change-resistant or otherwise problematic staff, including at administrative levels, simply reshuffling them instead. Reshuffled staff may no longer be doing the organization active harm, but that’s far from saying they’re doing productive, useful work. (The Loon says this, by the way, as one who has been reshuffled—as readers can no doubt imagine, loons are headstrong and difficult to manage—and found that the reshuffling improved matters in exactly no way at all, neither for her nor her employer. After a year of trying in vain to make the situation work, she found other employment. Fault her all you wish for how badly everything turned out—she deserves considerable blame—but in the end she just couldn’t live with not being useful.)
Another symptom, as library director Jenica Rogers has pointed out, is a palpable disconnect between what research-library administrators say their strategic priorities are, and the planning and (once again) resources dedicated to those supposed priorities. How long can such disconnects linger and worsen before gradual processes of organizational change cannot heal them? How long until the lip service is just no longer credible? Worst of all, if what the administrators say, rather than what they’re doing, is actually correct strategy, how is under-resourcing it in favor of propping up the status quo anything other than malinvestment?
The Loon could start endless fruitless 20/20-hindsight arguments over where libraries have underinvested; she has strong opinions on the subject. She’ll pass on that; it’s useless recrimination. Anyway, underinvestment isn’t driving restructuring most places, she believes, and even if it were, library administrators can’t easily admit as much. A properly-managed restructuring might manage to fix some underinvestment (at least for now), but it sadly can’t fix missed opportunities, so why dwell?
The second major problem facing research-library organizations is that steady downward pressure on collections budgets has not until quite recently been matched by pressure on librarian-rank staff budgets. The research library has truly been a sacred campus icon, and appealing to its sacredness has sufficed to protect librarian-rank staff. (That may not be all there is to it; as frustrating as it is that most university-folk have no idea what librarians do, the flip side of that coin is that they can’t easily waltz in and demand that it be done differently.) Paraprofessional complements have been taking hits, it’s true, and librarians ignored that at their peril just as tenured/tenure-track faculty ignored adjuncts only to find the very institution of tenure threatened.
Regrettably bluntly: research-library staffs are just too big relative to the perceived value of the library on campus, and relative to the staff complement of other infrastructure services. (Library-value campaigns may help to some extent, but the Loon thinks not enough.) Campus is starting to notice, demanding staff cuts too great to be managed by attrition alone. And just on numbers, “traditional” niches will be hardest hit. Imagine a library with fifty reference librarians and five systems librarians that must cut five positions, and you see the numbers problem.
So that’s thoroughly depressing and unnerving. What’s a research librarian to do?
Head out of the sand, first. Tradition guarantees no one’s job in this environment. Novelty is no guarantee either; the Loon wouldn’t bet much on some of the scholarly-communication positions in ARL libraries, for example, nor on any position created via Coordinator Syndrome. As the Loon said previously, “[t]he smart librarian… gauges her own time spent, and asks herself how much of it represents growth areas in librarianship generally and in her own library particularly. A too-small percentage may place that librarian at job risk, as she competes with librarians capable of different.”
Whatever one thinks of the Harvard situation, it does spur a useful thought-experiment. If you had to reapply for your job, would you be competitive against what’s in a typical applicant pool nowadays? (The Loon can tell you that today’s library-school graduates are sharper than they were in her day—and her day was not all that long ago. She’s outright intimidated by her more formidable students, so much so that she must remind herself to eschew the sin of Daedalus.) If you had to reapply for any job anywhere, what’s out there? What are research libraries looking for?
The Loon doesn’t just look at jobs within her own professional specialties when she goes through the above exercise (which she does now and again, on her own behalf and her students’). It’s worth trying for a gestalt notion of where research librarianship writ large is growing and shrinking. Moving into a new specialty may not be desirable or even feasible, but sorting out which new specialties you might be able to bolster strikes the Loon as smart self-preservation strategy; libraries will need staff willing and versatile enough to bridge old and new, lest they wind up in yet another round of Coordinator Syndrome.
Perhaps you’ll never be a data curator, O science liaison, but you can (the Loon swears this is true!) learn enough about research-data management to be a significant asset to any incoming data-curation program in your library. Without changing jobs. And that’s just one example. Don’t take the Loon’s word for it; read job ads, look for themes, and look for themes you can profitably fit yourself into.
Better still, forget about what’s happening inside libraries—what’s happening inside research universities? Expanding job-ad investigations to IT, instructional design, research administration, student services, and other such parallel fields only makes sense. Again, gestalt—where is the university going, and who will be needed to get it there?
Futurism? Eh. The Loon has library futurists she believes. She has others she’d like to believe. She occasionally dabbles in futurism herself—and based on her own track record, she doesn’t put too much faith in library futurism in any of its guises, certainly not enough to base her career decisions on it. Others’ mileage may vary, but the Loon prefers going boldly into the present to bloviating about what might perhaps happen later. (She wouldn’t be writing this post if, well, things weren’t happening now, see?)
A fate to fight tooth and nail is labor casualization. Permanent jobs may well not survive what’s coming, any more than they’re likely to for faculty, but that’s not the same thing as an intentional drive toward cheap, contingent, short-term labor. Be wary of postdocs in the library not because they’re Ph.Ds, not because they don’t hold MLSes, but because they’re on one- or two-year contracts, after which they will be discarded like so much dross. That could be anyone, next, so don’t let anyone on staff be treated this way if it can be avoided. Demand clear, fair, universally-applied policy with respect to hiring, retention, and promotion.
May good research libraries and good research librarians survive the coming turmoil with as little damage and as much potential as possible. The Loon wishes she could wish more boldly.
- Wistfully pondering blackouts
- The behemoth stirs